More than a century has passed since the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing white women’s voting rights in the United States. Our foremothers – Black, Asian American, Native and Latina – joined in the chorus of activism that led to the change in the Constitution to protect the full citizenship of all women, but Jim Crow and political violence kept and still keeps our full political power at bay.
Even today, the 19th Amendment doesn’t secure women of color’s voting rights in rural Georgia, or central Texas or southern Florida.
As long as there are those running on a platform dedicated to preventing access to voting, or throwing our votes out, or keeping us off the voting rolls altogether, they keep us from the political power and resources and the dignity that comes with the ballot. And as long as there are Congressmembers and Secretaries of State and governors and county voting officials in office today and on the ballot this November gathering their forces behind the belief that American democracy cannot be one person one vote, we will never be free.
In writing the history of women’s rights, we may forget some states did not recognize the voting rights of Black women after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Certain states kept the literacy tests, poll taxes and refused to address the violence and threats intended to keep Black women from the polls. Fannie Lou Hamer, who herself was grabbed from her home on a plantation in Mississippi, half stripped naked and beaten nearly to death by police officers for attempting to register Black people to vote, knew that the Constitutional guarantee was not real for millions, even with the 19th Amendment. She once said of the founding document, “With the people, for the people, by the people. I crack up when I hear it; I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, cause that’s what really happens.”
The activism that led to the 19th Amendment is an expression of a politics we have not yet fully seen. Black poet Frances E.W. Harper was among the first to call in white suffragettes to act in solidarity with women of color across the movement, a call not heeded by many white women. Born to parents who were former slaves, Mary Eliza Church Terrell joined fellow Black suffragette Ida B. Wells in the fight for both women’s suffrage and civil rights, recognizing the fight was tethered on two fronts: sex and race.
Indigenous rights activist Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota Sioux) pushed for the recognition of Native people as U.S. citizens with the right to vote in the early 1900s. Chinese immigrant Mabel Ping-Hua Lee called for equal voting rights for women around this same time. Latina educator Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren lobbied hard to ratify the 19th Amendment in her state of New Mexico. This year, Nina’s activism and legacy is honored on the U.S. quarter.
Don’t forget these titans on this anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment.
And the Constitution is at the center of our fight for freedom today. The talking heads on Fox and NewsMax and Twitter that oppose a comprehensive guarantee of our voting rights under the 19th Amendment are Constitutional ”originalists,” who believe that the text written nearly 250 years ago should govern our practices and laws. These originalists want the words of a handful to rule us today. They want a country that harkens back to a time when women of color did not have voice, power and freedom.
Originalists know that in the Constitution, Black people were counted as ⅗ of a person and Indigenous people were not guaranteed citizenship or humanity but were destroyed and run off their land. Originalists understand Latino and Asian people were second-class citizens in the Constitution of old.
Our fight for the next 100 years of the 19th Amendment is to politically defeat originalists and all those who believe this country is and should always be for the benefit of white people above all else. We must defend our rights as women of color, those that brave women fought and died for, and we must demand more. If it’s up to women of color — and as the fastest growing, staunchest defenders of our collective freedom it should be — then we need to build power that recognizes gender and race and intersectional identity (it would be, after all, the election of Black women as Florida Sen. Val Demings or a North Carolina Sen. Cheri Beasley that would power our fight for the vote and abortion rights.) This is the modern fight for freedom and our collective fate that binds us.
Winning the right to vote on paper was never enough.
Aimee Allison, the Founder and President of She the People, the nation’s leading organization dedicated to an America redefined and inspired by women of color, is a writer, democratic innovator and visionary champion of racial and gender justice.
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